More than a decade after Sept. 11, 2001, Christine Todd Whitman recently wrote in The New York Times, “a major flaw in our national security remains, leaving millions of Americans at risk.”
Whitman, a Republican former governor of New Jersey, should know. She was the head of the Environmental Protection Agency during the al-Qaida attack and during the unnerving months afterward as the U.S. assessed its vulnerability to terrorists.
As she wrote, “I knew what could happen, if a terrorist were to target a chlorine gas facility, to the hundreds of thousands of people living downwind.”
In the Houston area, we’re particularly vulnerable to such attacks. In 2008, the Center for American Progress used EPA data to compile a list of the country’s 101 most dangerous chemical facilities. Our area had 21.
After 9/11, the EPA considered using its existing authority to reduce chemical facilities’ vulnerability. Because the Clean Air Act requires facilities handling the most toxic chemicals to prevent catastrophic releases in the event of an attack, the agency could require plants to switch to safer processes and chemicals — alternatives that are cost-effective and widely available. Instead, the EPA waited for new legislation.
That, Whitman thinks, was a mistake. All these years later, she writes, “Congress is hopelessly gridlocked on extending the inadequate homeland security appropriations statute that currently regulates the industry.”
That’s alarming. Al-Qaida and its spawn aren’t the only ones who might eye those facilities with interest. Mass murders committed by the insane occupy too many of our news pages. And computer hackers — ranging from those controlled by China’s military to teenagers out for the Internet equivalent of a joyride — are wreaking ever more havoc from a distance.
The good news, though, is that the EPA still has the authority to take action. We agree with Whitman: Reducing our vulnerability isn’t about politics. It’s about public safety.